Posts Tagged ‘Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’

Albert Mohler Jr. and “post-Christian America”

May 9, 2012 2 comments

I recently started listening to Albert Mohler Jr.’s weekday podcast The Briefing [link]. I picked it up because James White recommended it, and he recommends so little that anyone else does I thought I’d give it a listen just on his recommendation.

I’m kind of luke on Mohler generally; I’m already on the record for saying that I agree that the modern American evangelical church is sick but disagree that Calvinism (or Lutheranism, or Reformed Theology generally) is the solution, and I have kind of a wait and see attitude regarding the leadership of any of the new Calvinists within Evangelicalism. By the same token I’m so sick and tired of Richard Land that I’m glad to hear anybody within the Southern Baptist Convention talking about cultural and political issues from a Southern Baptist perspective. It should be a time of great disenchantment, and I’ve been waiting for someone to start doing the heavy lifting of disenchanting.

Mohler works from a fairly narrow palate of themes and a broad spectrum of sources. I’m glad to hear someone cite more than just a handful of mainstream media outlets who doesn’t behave as if Fox News, OneNewsNow and constitute a well-balanced news diet.

Mohler talks a lot about “worldviews,” a word that only conservative Christians use heavily, and after a few dozen episodes I’m still not sure what he means when he says it. I’m accustomed to it meaning “things we/they believe instead of thinking” or “things we believe because they fit other things we believe, not because we’ve evaluated their truth claims specifically.” It is usually taken as shorthand for the great gulf fixed between us and “them:” unbelievers, liberals, Socialists, etc. and which cannot be crossed but can only be identified. I hope he means more than this, but I’m not sure.

Mohler talks a lot about a “Genesis 3” perspective, by which I think he means a world that is already Fallen and cannot be fixed.

And finally he talks a lot about “America as a post-Christian nation,” which after listening to him for a while I have to believe he means as a term of nostalgia, suggesting that America was once a Christian nation and can only be understood as such. And here’s where I have to part company with Mohler. So far as I can tell America was never a Christian nation; it was always a post-Christian nation. So far as I can tell the Christian phase, if there was one, was long over by 1776, and it left no trace in any of the country’s founding documents. And it troubles me greatly to hear revisionists like David Barton taken seriously in various Christian media outlets (I’m thinking of Janet Parshall here, but I’m confident there are others).

I want to come back to this later, but I want to stake out a position first. Let’s not kid ourselves: America was never a Christian nation. I love being a Christian and I’m grateful to be an American, but I always want to remind folks that those aren’t the same thing.

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Robert Jeffress, cults, and all that

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I am not a big fan of Robert Jeffress; I don’t know a lot about him, but he came to my attention during the fundraising campaign for his downtown Dallas campus a couple of years ago. At the time I thought he was a pretty good example of what’s wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention: he’s a strong personality, has a board that apparently agrees with him on everything, doesn’t mind saying or doing controversial things that have nothing to do with the Gospel, etc. If I had a “big-name conservative pastor dead pool,” a list of guys I expect to blow up or break down within the next five years, I suspect Jeffress would be on it.

I’d rather be wrong, of course. As always I’d much rather learn I’ve misunderstood someone, or see someone who is being reckless have a change of heart and learn to moderate their behavior, or whatever. And some recent posts by Tom Rich at his FBC Jax Watchdog blog [e.g. link] suggest that perhaps Jeffress isn’t just another loose cannon in the pulpit.

Still, I am inclined to see Jeffress’s recent “Mormonism is a cult” comments much the same way a lot of secular commentators have seen them: as just an uncomfortable religious/political favor done by a high-profile pastor for the high-profile governor of his state. In this case, a favor done by Jeffress for Texas governor Rick Perry.

I was interested to see that National Public Radio went to Richard Land for comment on the Jeffress flap [link], and I would love to hear Land’s unedited comments. Land is right: “cult” is a term with a bunch of meanings, and Mormonism’s relationship with little-oh orthodox Christianity is complicated. And I’m not surprised to see Land here lumping where Jeffress is splitting: despite Land’s apparent position as someone who advocates on behalf of a religious group with political organizations, I would argue that what he really does is sell Republican Party decisions to Southern Baptists. So the Jeffress flap puts Land in a difficult position, since Land will be stuck selling Romney to Southern Baptists if and when Romney is the Republican nominee.

It would take a lot for me to vote for Romney; I tend to see second-generation political figures who switch their position on abortion midlife (or midcareer) as not being solidly pro-life and not likely to do much to deliver on pro-life campaign promises, and as a former Massachusetts governor I just don’t see Romney as being all that conservative. I won’t say I’d vote for Obama over Romney necessarily, but I’m going to take some convincing to vote for Romney.

I tend to see Romney as being in that Bush Sr/Dole/McCain mold, an establishment Republican that evangelical opinion leaders sell at their peril. I’d be willing to guess that in his heart of hearts Richard Land wishes he had a better candidate to sell. Or at least that Robert Jeffress would shut up.


Humphreys: The Way We Were

August 5, 2011 Leave a comment

As careful long-time readers of this blog know, I come from a fundamentalist background, and attended several churches that formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches in the Fifties and Sixties in central Virginia, just prior to the conservative resurgence within the SBC. Not all of my family made the jump; some of them had made the jump from the United Methodist Church to the SBC twenty or thirty years earlier, and were disinclined to leave churches where the extended family had become fairly deeply entrenched, where they were serving as deacons and Sunday School teachers, and where they had already purchased plots in the church cemetery. So as a result part of my family watched the SBC gyrations of the last thirty years from inside the SBC, while others watched from outside.

Regardless, we were on balance in agreement with the conservatives within the SBC; we believed that they had a higher regard for Scripture than the old guard they were replacing, and we expected that all sorts of evil would be avoided by the SBC’s move to the right. In particular, I think we assumed that the creeping secularism and liberalism we saw in other similar churches (read: the United Methodist Church) would be avoided if we conservatives took back the SBC.

I suppose in retrospect that we were right to a degree. I don’t know how I would measure something like that. I can say with some confidence that if I visit a local SBC church today it bears a closer resemblance to the independent Baptist churches I grew up in than does say a local UMC church, in both good ways and bad. On the other hand, the path the SBC has taken in the last thirty years has had its own difficulties, only some of which it would have encountered had it stayed the course in the Seventies. For example, I suspect the SBC would still have become richer and more suburban and some of its churches would still be megachurches if the conservatives hadn’t taken over.

Fisher Humphreys was one of the losers in the SBC internecine conflict; he is a self-avowed progressive, and he lost his position at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary during a purge of liberals. I’m not sure when; details are sketchy.

His 1994 book The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology has Changed and What it Means to Us All [link] is an attempt to put some of the disagreement between the two sides (the conservatives or fundamentalists on one side; everyone else on the other) in some sort of a historical theological context. If I understand him correctly he is making the argument that there is, always has been, and always will be, a mainstream of Baptist-ness within the SBC, and an assortment of minority views and voices that are not part of that mainstream, and the fundamentalists are not in the historical mainstream of the SBC. Along the way he more or less lays out the case of the Mainstream Baptists [link, link].

I have been carrying this book around with me for more than a month, trying to decide whether to blog about it and if so what angle to take. I think it is helpful to go back and read the perspectives of people like Humphreys who were both part of the history and who bothered to put pen to paper talking about it later. I have to admit I am mostly accustomed to hearing his views represented from a fundamentalist perspective, and I thought it was helpful to hear what he and people like him think of the changes in the SBC, even if at times I can’t figure how what he’s saying corresponds to what I thought were the issues at the time.


Polytheism and American Civil Religion

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment

I haven’t had time lately to offer much more/other than quick takes, and this is another one.

I’d like to recommend this month-old segment from Issues Etc. [mp3]; it’s an appearance by Alvin Schmidt, where he notes the theological overtones to some of the aspects of Independence Day observances and frames them in the context of polytheism, particularly First and Second Century Roman polytheism, and suggests that they are aspects of a kind of American civil religion of which a careful Christian needs to be mindful.

I am for the moment going to punt on what constitutes a religion; I believe that many of my contemporaries play fast and loose with definitions here; not everything that has one or more of the characteristics of a religion can fairly be called a religion. I’m thinking here of atheism in particular, because that’s a fashionable argument. A generation ago Secular Humanism got trotted out as a religion too, and I didn’t buy the argument then either.

Never mind all that. Schmidt makes one good point here that bears repeating: if somebody is talking about a god, and doesn’t mention whether that god has a son called Jesus, it’s fair to say he’s not talking about the Christian God. And this is an important distinction to make when observing secular holidays like Independence Day.

I sometimes wonder if the LCMS is the only place I can find somebody pointing out problems with American civil religion because the LCMS is just not all that American, and certainly not American in the way (say) the Southern Baptist Convention is. The SBC, with its history rooted in groups that dissented explicitly from Anglicanism both in the UK and in the States, sometimes has a hard time seeing how its thinking on matters political is framed by its preoccupation with things American. Or something like that.

The LCMS, of course, being for so much of its history predominantly ethnically German, carries different baggage.

Thielen: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

April 18, 2011 2 comments

This is the final post on this book, and it deals with a single question: “Do Mainline Christians Believe in Getting Saved?” Hint: Thielen’s short answer is “yes.”

As I mentioned before, Thielen converted from Southern Baptist to United Methodist after many years as an SBC pastor. I am guessing having read this book that he left during the SBC conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover [link], mostly on the basis of where he ended up, what he feels necessary to say in such a short book, and what he doesn’t feel is necessary. He opens this chapter by setting up a foil for his argument, namely the long and manipulative altar call sometimes found at evangelical churches or revival meetings. He says some people get saved that way, but not everyone. He then proceeds to give a fairly standard presentation of the Wesleyan formula for personal salvation:

  1. Salvation is a lifelong process
  2. We are saved by God’s grace
  3. Salvation requires human response

And three steps of salvation:

  1. God’s prevenient grace
  2. God’s justifying grace
  3. God’s sanctifying grace

He also name-checks “working out your salvation” and “going on toward perfection.” It’s pretty standard stuff from his tradition. It’s also interesting to note that while he discusses confirmation, he actually presents a “sinner’s prayer” at the end of his discussion. I honestly can’t decide if by doing so he’s sending a mixed message or not.

I have to admit that as someone who grew up in a Baptist home (independent Baptist, but independent specifically from SBC and UMC lineage) I feel I have to point out two things:

  1. I believe when someone presents a formula for salvation, especially one that involves sanctification, one is obligated to deal with questions surrounding “works righteousness” and “falling away.” Or to beg a particular question, “eternal security.”
  2. I have to admit that I kind of envy confirmation or catechesis prior to baptism, and I wish that the traditions I’ve spent the most time in placed more emphasis on these, rather than having a “walk the aisle, pray the prayer, sign the card” formula people who leave our tradition tend to despise.

The latter being said, I am amazed how many people I’ve met who went through confirmation class, weren’t in any way shape or form converted, were confirmed as a formality, and later despised and repudiated their confirmation and denied they were ever Christians. I suppose it is one of the pitfalls of having a process of any kind that a person will either put their faith in the process itself or manage to navigate the process without any faith at all.

It’s a great puzzle to me how it seems that more people leave the evangelical churches for the older, more denominational churches, but the people who leave the older denominational churches lose their faith altogether. I’d love to have some real data here to weigh and measure, but I don’t; the anecdotes seem to suggest that, though.

But to get back to Thielen: it’s important to note that he doesn’t as far as I can tell locate salvific force in our faith, as Arminians are often accused of doing. There’s no “well were you sincere?” aspect to his formula here. And from having various Lutheran and Reformed authors caricature Arminian soteriology I would have expected exactly that.

All told this is a light little book and as such has to cut corners; I’m more curious than I was before what rank and file lifelong Methodists actually believe and practice. I prefer to believe that the Church Universal encompasses people of most if not all denominations, and there was nothing here to suggest that mainline Christians are Christians in name only.

Thielen: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

April 6, 2011 1 comment

Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian is available free at the moment as a Kindle e-book [link]. This is a question that is much on my mind, so I decided to give this book a read. And of course it was attractively priced.

It bothers me somewhat when groups of obviously devout Christians square off against one another, each suggesting that the other isn’t really a Christian, over an issue that appears to me to not be a core element (e.g. an essential doctrine or practice) of Christianity. One of the solutions to this problem that tempts me from time to time is to embrace a kind of “Mere Christianity,” a kind of doctrinal formulation of Christianity that, not to be confused with the C. S. Lewis book of the same name [link], tries to separate the essentials from the inessentials and allow devout and sanctified but differing Christians some sort of charitable communion [link]. Unfortunately this is a difficult thing to define. If you steer clear of the socially oriented definition (“Mere Christianity is the collection of doctrines that all Christian groups have in common”) you eventually have to make some difficult choices.

But I digress. Thielen isn’t really trying to answer this question; he’s answering another one. This book has three parts:

  • Ten things Christians don’t have to believe
  • Ten things Christians do need to believe
  • A coda on special topics

Thielen’s personal story is that he was apparently a bigwig in the Southern Baptist Convention, but at some point left and chose to become a United Methodist as opposed to Episcopalian or Presbyterian. The book reads like it was written by his post-departure self as a travel document for his pre-departure self. In other words, I get the sense that he’s giving himself permission to have made the jump from SBC to UMC, and this is a summary of that permission. I think he’s actually proposing answers to the question “How Can I Be a Christian and Not Be One of Those?”

In a way this is a defense of a kind of liberal Christianity, one that quotes Marcus Borg approvingly but that can still call itself Christian, with some sort of reference points in common with a kind of conservative Christianity.

There are a handful of ways to do something like this. One is to start with Scripture and build a theological framework; another is to start with cultural non-negotiables; a third is to tell stories. Thielen mostly tells stories. In a later post I’ll pick up with his list of ten things a Christian doesn’t need to believe.

consider the following hypothetical church

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I need to wrap up the Mars Hill Albuquerque series, but I picked up the following anecdote on one of my recent trips and need to get it off my chest.

Consider a smallish Southern Baptist church in a heavily churched small city, say a church that draws 150 on a typical Sunday, in a city of 80,000 or so people (with 250,000-300,000 in the surrounding metro area), with one or two megachurches and say 100+ other theologically conservative churches at least 60 of which are Southern Baptist. Imagine that this church has paid for its building, which is relatively modern and on a nice piece of property. Imagine that its operating budget is $250,000 a year and it makes ends meet.

Now imagine that this church is shrinking steadily as members age out for various reasons: kids grow up and leave town, older people retire and leave town or die. They have a pastor who is appropriate for their demographics: theologically conservative, but also well on his way to retirement, probably physically incapable of doing much more than the usual workload of “preaching, marrying, and burying,” and mostly reworks sermons he’s already preached, does relatively few weddings and rather more funerals.

Now suppose because of the general drift above, and maybe because a sustained downturn in the local economy pulls contributions down a bit (say 8%, toward $230,000 a year), the church misses budget a couple of quarters in a row and shows signs of not being able to make ends meet if the trend persists downward. And suppose that while in possession of all the facts above you discover that the pastor makes $92,000 a year, in a town where the average family, according to census figures, makes roughly $42,000 a year, and in a church where only two or three members make a comparable amount of money (in the vicinity of $90,000 from wages, investment proceeds, or other compensation) each year.

What’s the right thing to do? Do you

  1. Dip into the church’s savings to reach out to the local community in hopes of boosting attendance and revenue?
  2. Gradually spend the church’s savings on operating costs and hope for the best?
  3. Hire several new staff members, fresh out of school, including a new music leader, in the hope of attracting a younger demographic?
  4. Switch from singing mostly hymns to a mix of hymns and contemporary music or possibly just contemporary music?
  5. Become more conservative in the hope of attracting an older, more conservative, but ostensibly wealthier demographic?
  6. Ask the pastor to take a pay cut knowing that his pension is based at least in part on his salary and he’s just a few years from retirement?
  7. Fire the pastor and replace him with someone cheaper.

Hint: I don’t have a good answer here. If I put on my business hat it looks to me like the pastor is making too much money (that’s 40% of gross after the 8% drop), but it would be callous to fire him outright; if I put on my Pauline theology hat I might be inclined to say this is a decision that should be left in the hands of the older men of the church, but honestly they’re the ones responsible for the current situation. And in a heavily churched city it’s very difficult to distinguish one mature church from another without making massive changes, and massive changes imply lots of risk. The worst case would probably be to make radical changes, scare off the primary contributors, and fail to attract enough new people to make back the money lost.